Dr. Miller: You're pregnant and you're uncomfortable. Do you really have to sleep on your side? We're going to talk about that next on Scope Radio, and I'm Dr. Tom Miller.
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How to Sleep When Pregnant
Dr. Miller: I'm here with Dr. Howard Sharp. He's a professor of obstetrics and gynecology here at the University of Utah. Do women really need to sleep on their side when they're pregnant? What's the story there, Howard?
Dr. Sharp: Well, it is recommended, and the reason for that is the big vessel, the aorta, comes off the left side and it's the higher pressure.
Dr. Miller: The aorta is a blood vessel that brings blood down to the lower part of the body and to the baby.
Dr. Sharp: Exactly. And then on the right side there is the vena cava, which is the return pipe. Ideally, sometimes when a pregnant patient is more than 20 weeks pregnant, there is a little bit more compression against that vena cava. So if you can have them kind of pressing against the aorta, which is the high pressure side, it's not as big a deal. It's easier for the blood to get through.
Dr. Miller: But does that matter or is that just an old wives' tale that you have the sleep on your side?
Dr. Sharp: Well, there is one study that was relatively good, but not fantastic, that did show improvement in outcomes where patients slept on their left side. But the truth is everybody wakes up on their back, and there's rarely a pregnant woman that I see who doesn't ask that question.
Dr. Miller: So the key thing is if the woman starts out lying on her side and wakes up on her back, which is pretty common, that's probably just fine.
Dr. Sharp: Yes, because this has been happening certainly for centuries and centuries, so probably not a huge deal. Now, I'll tell you one funny thing. I did have a really sweet patient who taped a tennis ball onto her back with duct tape. You do not need to do that.
Dr. Miller: To keep herself from rolling onto her back?
Dr. Sharp: Exactly. But I thought, well, that is a dedicated mom. But what you can do, and the truth is even the right side is probably okay, it's mostly just that you're not flat, you could also prop yourself up with wedges, and that helps if you just can't sleep on your side.
Also, a lot of people get these body pillows where they're able to take this really long pillow and they're kind of able to clutch that, put it between their thighs, and that kind of helps them stay on their side. So that's another option.
Dr. Miller: Well, so one of the things you talked about was compression of the major vessels in the body, but what would potentially be the bad outcome?
Dr. Sharp: The worry is that if the blood is not flowing back to the baby, could that deprive the baby of oxygen and nutrients. I think it's really more of a theoretical concern. I don't think it's the end of the world if one ends up on their back.
Dr. Miller: So it sounds like women that are pregnant beyond 20 weeks should start out lying on their side, try to sleep on their side, but if they wake up and they're on their back, don't worry about it.
Dr. Sharp: But if they're on their back, they shouldn't lose sleep over it.
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updated: July 12, 2018
originally published: April 7, 2015
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